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For a Full Account of Cancer Genes

The Cancer Genome Atlas has sifted through some 500 samples of 20 different types of cancer in an effort to uncover what makes different cancers tick, but a recent study in Nature estimates that that effort may have only scratched the surface, writes Carl Zimmer at the New York Times.

"The Cancer Genome Atlas has been a spectacular success, there's no doubt about that,” Bruce Stillman, the president of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, tells Zimmer

In the recent Nature paper, Broad Institute researchers examined samples from both TCGA and its own collection — totaling about 4,740 samples from 21 cancer types — and found 33 candidate cancer genes that hadn't previously been linked to the disease. The researchers estimate that some 100,000 cancer samples would be needed to find the genes involved in 50 different types of cancer.

"We now know what it would take to get a complete catalog,” the Broad's Eric Lander and co-author of the study says. "And we now know we’re not close to done. We have a lot left to learn.”

The atlas, Zimmer says, may have only gotten a tenth of the way toward a full catalog.

But whether or not an effort to finish the catalog will be undertaken is not clear, Zimmer notes.

“There's no question that it would be valuable. The question is whether it's worth it," Bert Vogelstein from Johns Hopkins University tells him.